There are without doubt many incredible things about living in India. India, in fact, has given me the opportunity to do things and see things that I could never have done back in England. In just 6 months, I have learnt more about the world and myself than I could have done in 10 years in the UK. India has taught me that people can preserver in the face of hopelessness; they can smile and be happy when all else seems lost.
India has also shown me that it is a disgustingly racist.
‘All my life, I thought I was ugly. All my life, people told my mum that my sister was beautiful and I was not. When I married, I always worried that my husband found me too ugly’. This from a beautiful woman not just internally but also externally. Why had she been brought up to believe she was so ugly? Why? She was darker skinned than her sister. In a society that values white skin, the darker you are, the more you are perceived to be ugly.
My maid told me that her brother (who is very dark skinned) is consistently told by his wife (who is quite light skinned) that she doesn’t deserve such an ugly husband. She deserves someone more handsome – i.e. whiter skinned. How degrading for the husband (especially as this was a love marriage – she made her own decision to marry him) and how confusing and upsetting for their children to overhear.
Not only does your skin colour seem to determine your level of beauty but it also seems to determine whether or not you are trustworthy. The darker your skin the more likely you are to be stopped and searched or as is the case more frequently, the darker your skin, the more likely security guards will make it difficult for you to enter housing societies or worse again to get jobs or promotions.
As you drive around India today or you visit friends have a look around. Just how many cleaning staff, maids, drivers, security guards look like the people above? Just how many senior managers or even junior managers don’t look like the people above. I do not know a single maid or driver that I would not consider dark skinned – not a single one. Perhaps that is just Pune but something tells me it is not.
I am never anymore than superficially searched – I could carry anything in anywhere! Sometimes I feel like shouting – ‘you know I’m Irish, we have terrorist organisations too – how about you trust me less!’ Other times, our car is not searched while the car in front of us is checked carefully. It’s OK though – I’m a white foreigner so you don’t need to check me!
White is associated with trustworthiness, education and aspiration. All you need to do is walk down any ‘beauty’ aisle in a supermarket to realise that everything comes with skin whitener in it. The only anti-perspirant I can buy in India is also whitening – whitening for my armpits! When a society worries about whether its armpits are white enough that is when you know a society has a serious problem with racism.
It takes 1 minute to find tips to becoming whiter online and it takes only moments to realise that the international beauty companies are in cahoots with a society that puts white over well what you really are.
A stranger prior to coming to India if they only watched Bollywood movies, saw adverts and read celebrity magazines could be forgiven for thinking that India was actually a ‘white’ country. The fact that Bollywood has now started recruiting white teenage girls from the UK with no Indian heritage to come and be turned into Bollywood stars indicates just how white you need to be to get ahead.
Just check out this list of the top 10 Bollywood stars of 2015. Not a single face is anything other than almost white. Where are the role models there for those that do not look like them?
You could be forgiven for thinking based on the advertising hoardings for new housing societies that frolicking in the gardens of ‘Crystal Society’ or ‘Westminster Lodge’ were happy little English families – only difference perhaps being that these ‘English’ families are wearing saris and salwar kameez!
As a new comer to this country, I try to avoid falling into the trap of saying that everything in the UK is great and comparing it to India and finding India lacking. That, to me, just isn’t realistic and it isn’t fair. Just ask any average British person on the street in the UK at the moment about their attitudes to Syrian refugees and it won’t take you long to find a revolting response to the crisis.
I can however judge the racism I see in India as unacceptable. I see racism here that would have been considered deplorable in the UK 20 years ago. Someone told me recently that on a WhatsApp group she received a picture of a white person and a black person with the caption – Oreo Cookie!
How this was perceived as acceptable to share as a joke is inconceivable. Sometimes racism is an outcome of ignorance and often this ignorance is driven by lack of opportunities to broaden your view of the world, a lack of opportunity to experience more than the world simply around you. This lack of opportunity is often driven by not being able to afford to get outside of the world you live in.
This WhatsApp group, on the other hand, was a group for children at an international school. It was sent by an Indian who had the resources to pay the very high school fees and I can also assume consider it worth doing so the children could expand their horizons. These would be the very parents who would be more likely to have the time and money to break down the ignorance that such racism stems from. If parents at this level of society fail to see how wrong their racism is, how will others with less opportunities deal with such things?
In the UK, as a teacher I always felt it was crucial to consistently show young people that they didn’t have to be stick thin to be beautiful despite what celebrity culture said. I didn’t however have to try and convince them that they shouldn’t try and change something that is ultimately unchangeable – who they are – what their ethnic make-up was / what their skin colour was. While there are not enough role models from different ethnic groupings in the UK, there are role models.
Here it feels like the only role models are almost white. What does that say to the young girl or boy who is dark skinned when in reality there is nothing they can do to change it or indeed there is no real reason to need to change it? What does it say? It says: ‘you are worth less than those lighter coloured skinned people. You should not aspire to as much because you are not beautiful, you are not aspirational, you are not wanted.’ What sort of a message is that for India to send its own people?
I too come from a land that was formerly colonised by the British Empire – Ireland. I too lived in a land where for centuries to be Irish was seen as being less than British. Just like Indians, the Irish were laughed at in Britain for being ‘bog trotters’ – basically unsophisticated idiots. Now the days of colonialism are long gone for both nations (Ireland became independent in 1948) but we shouldn’t forget that we were once looked down upon and therefore to look down upon your own is almost a greater sin than being looked down upon by a foreign agent.
I teach the children in my classrooms that unless they respect themselves nobody will respect them. Well, if India does not respect the fact that is is not an homogenous or more or less white Hindu country but rather a country of so many religions and of none; of so many ethnic groups; mixed ethnic groups; and mixed skin colours than how can it expect to be respected around the world.
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